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Fire Study Does Not Offer Proper Context

Contra Costa Times "Letter to the Editor" from Vince Wells, September 21st, 2013:

Fire Study Does Not Offer Proper Context --

There is a perception by some that the Contra Costa Fire District is operating under an outdated service model. The Con Fire board of directors and even the consultant they hired acknowledge that our fire calls have not changed much over the years.

Yes, we are responding to more medical emergencies than we are fires. But our core mission is unchanged and the number of fire responses each year is not declining.

This is why firefighters have many concerns about the operational plan and potential deployment strategies to be proposed in the upcoming Fitch Associates study. A preliminary plan was unveiled last month.

Fitch is using incomplete data to support a faulty premise: that emergency calls follow a predictable pattern and the impact to services can be minimized by capturing inefficiencies in the system.

The "location" and "time of day" graphics mapping our calls in the Fitch presentations are incomplete. Obviously, every call is not the same. The study does not reflect the complexity of the calls, including how many were dispatched, the duration of the call, how many people needed aid, how many concurrent calls came in and which calls were for automatic aid.

For instance, the recent Morgan Fire on Mount Diablo, which included more than 1,000 firefighters from multiple jurisdictions and took six days to contain, would show up as one dot on the map at 1:50 p.m. on a Sunday. Data is useless if it does not offer context.

National standards recommend that 15 firefighters and one supervisor be able to arrive on scene within eight minutes to a standard residential fire. With our current staffing, this requires five fire stations to be emptied because we have three firefighters assigned to each station. This is known as a first alarm. Each additional alarm requires the same resources. A two-alarm structure fire in the middle of the night will have a significant impact on the number of resources that would be available for any additional emergencies.

Additional closed stations, as proposed in the Fitch presentations, have the potential to increase response times, and the increased risks are measurable. The projected two-minute delayed response time after closing more fire stations seems reasonable. However, the measurement for delay in response time is flawed. This two-minute delay assumes all of our engines/trucks are sitting somewhere strategic at the same time. That is unlikely. When an engine/truck responds to an incident, it leaves significant geographical gaps in coverage and results in a longer than two-minute delay in response time.

A final study should also look at "norms" around the Bay Area and around the country. The study should compare our personnel, resources, costs and performance against other fire departments and districts that serve a large suburban area that has similar dynamics, including an unpredictable wildfire season and large open space and major oil refineries and other industrial businesses.

The study should also include a baseline demand requirement that specifies the necessary personnel and resources needed for a fire district of this size and complexity. And, it should document the benefits and risks associated with the adoption of any new model for deployment.

Firefighters continue to work with the board to address declining revenue and the need to ensure the public's safety, including a pilot study at Fire Station 1 in Walnut Creek to run a medical squad for lower priority medical calls, which will help keep fire engines available for higher priority calls

However, a fire district of this size and complexity should not be a test lab for unproven and potentially dangerous deployment strategies proposed by Fitch. The public deserves to know the truth about what these proposed models really mean to their fire service.

-- Vince Wells is president of the United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County, Local 1230